Ever since Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced the Human Rights Act in 1998, which frequently prioritizing the rights of criminals over those of their victims, according to many aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights, Britain's human rights legislation has been the subject of much controversy. The Human Rights Act was again brought into sharp relief last week after a terrorist was released from prison.
Siraj Yassin Abdullah Ali was convicted of aiding and abetting a terrorist cell that was trying to strike London two weeks after another terror attack, this time on the transit system, claimed 52 lives on July 7, 2005. Only good luck prevented a further loss of life after the copycat attack, in which Ali was involved on July 21, failed. In the subsequent investigation, it became clear that Ali had been told of the plot in advance, that he occasionally shared a flat with its ringleader, that he had helped the terrorist cell clean its makeshift bomb factory once their devices were prepared, and that Police had found bomb-making instructions in his house. Ali, for his part in the conspiracy, was given nine years, but was paroled last week after serving half that sentence.
Article 3 of both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act protects individuals from torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment. For foreign terrorists convicted in Britain, their notoriety means they can almost always successfully argue that returning them home would constitute a violation of their human rights. Even the government's independent reviewer of terrorist legislation, Lord Carlile, has argued that the current situation has turned Britain into a "safe haven" for terrorists.
Ali will therefore now be free to live in Britain permanently without the fear of being returned to his native Eritrea. Although the Home Office and UK Border Agency have tried to deport him, Ali has argued that doing so would breach his human rights because of the potential for him to be tortured there.
The father of David Foulkes, a 22 year old who was killed in the 2005 attacks on the London transit system, told the Daily Mail newspaper, "These people were plotting to commit mass murder -- what about the human rights of victims and families?"
"These people had no consideration for the women and children they were trying to kill. How can they claim we should look after and support them?" he said.
Of course, human rights are not an "optional extra" to be abandoned whenever they prove inconvenient. Such legislation exists precisely for those moments.
Yet perhaps the issue should be considered here in its fullest extent. Individuals have the right to liberty unless they break the law. Society accepts that criminals have essentially given up that right when committing their crime and are incarcerated as a result. It is the most basic formulation of the idea that rights should be tied to responsibilities.
In this case, Ali is not a British citizen: why, therefore, did he not consequently gave up his right to live in England after breaking the law? After all, visiting and residing in a foreign country is not an automatic right – it is a privilege. Not only did Ali break the law in Britain, but he participated in an ideologically motivated conspiracy indiscriminately to kill and maim innocent civilians. Shouldn't that be enough to repatriate him to Eritrea?
There is the fear that Ali could be detained and subjected to ill treatment on his return; but just how much weight should the government give this? There is no guarantee that, if Ali were to return there, he would be subjected to such treatment. At present it is just a hypothetical situation imagined by his lawyers. If Ali were to be detained on his return to Eritrea, should this automatically concern the British government? To what extent should Whitehall be responsible for the actions of foreign governments; and why should the British state now have to now provide for a man ideologically committed to its destruction?
The problem extends beyond just this case. One of Britain's oldest defence think tanks, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) issued a report last year revealing that while more than 230 individuals have been convicted of terrorism offenses since 9/11, just 100 are still incarcerated. The problem of monitoring – and knowing what to do with – those who have been released is therefore a growing one. Deporting foreign nationals who pose a threat to national security is an obvious measure, but one which the current legislation prohibits.
The problem is hardly new. In the early 1990s the Saudi government applied exceptional pressure on Britain to have one of its nationals, Dr. Mohammed al-Massari, returned to the Kingdom. Massari had created and run a group committed to overthrowing the Royal Family in Saudi Arabia, and he had close links to a number of radicals within the country who constituted the sahwa [awakening] movement. The Egyptian government has also frequently protested about radicals operating out of London. For this clique of foreign dissidents, their greatest asset was the brutality of the regimes asking for their return. So long as it looked as if they could be tortured on their return, they could freely live in Britain without the fear of being repatriated.
The guarantee of individual rights is one of the cornerstones of Western civilization. When terrorists are apprehended they are afforded legal counsel, a fair trial, and enjoy precisely the kind of dignity and equality that they deny their victims. It is a remarkable point that the would-be twentieth hijacker of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Zacarias Moussaoui, was given a trial in open court and allowed to argue a defense.
Although these are the values whose contours define the West and that must be defended and upheld, why is it not foolhardy to confuse the notion of rights with privileges? Ali broke the most fundamental pact with a country that extended him the privilege of living in security. Why would returning him to Eritrea now not be an issue of violating his human rights, but of rescinding the courtesies he betrayed?